Egypt crackdown hits Brotherhood power bases

For the Muslim Brotherhood to survive and thrive, it needs to shore up its traditional base of syndicates and students.

An Egyptian student shouts slogans as ot
Egyptian students could be the key to continued support for the Islamist group [AFP]

Cairo, Egypt – More than 13 million Egyptians voted for the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidate Mohamed Morsi in the presidential elections in 2012. One year later, as Morsi turns from the first democratically-elected, civilian president to deposed leader, a majority of Egyptians said in a recent poll that they agreed with the way two Brotherhood protest camps were cleared by security forces in recent weeks. 

Last Wednesday, security forces cleared the Rabaa and Nahda square camps of Brotherhood supporters who were protesting the military order deposing Mosi, leaving hundreds of people dead and thousands injured. The military takeover followed mass protests by disgruntled Egyptians against the president and the Brotherhood more generally. 

As senior officials from Brotherhood are arrested and hundreds of supporters are killed in protests, the future of the 80-year-old organisation, which is thought to be the largest Islamist group in the world, has become a matter of intense speculation.

Mohamed al-Qassas, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who left the organisation following the 2011 revolution, says that Morsi’s rule was”catastrophic”.

“That’s why I participated in the June 30 mass protests against Morsi,” the young defector said. He believes that what he considers Morsi’s bad governance made a military coup inevitable. “But no-one imagined this level of violence against the Brotherhood,” he added.

Underground history

An opinion poll conducted by the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research said that 67 percent of Egyptians agreed with the way the protest camps were cleared, 24 percent disagreed, while 9 percent remained undecided. Another poll conducted in late July, showed that 71 percent of Egyptians do not sympathise with the demonstrations in support of Morsi.

Yet, Qassas believes that the organisation has managed to regain much of its strength.

During its long history, Brotherhood members gained their internal structural strength through the “ordeals” they went through – the more crackdowns they were subjected to, the stronger and the more coherent they became – Qassas said.

The group’s founder Hassan al-Banna was killed by the authorities in 1949. In 1954, the Brotherhood was deemed illegal by the Egypt’s new government following a military coup. In 1964, many Brotherhood figures were arrested by coup leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and the organisation was almost destroyed.

In the 1970s, the group was given a chance of survival by late president Anwar El-Sadat, only to witness a similar crackdown following his assassination by Islamist fighters. The Brotherhood’s struggle with Hosni Mubarak’s regime which was deposed in 2011 was also bloody at times.

“Before June 30, many of the Brotherhood members started to think of defections. But as soon as they faced this flagrant security crackdown, they were united again. After the violent clearing of the protest camps, I could not resist but to join the protests myself condemning the violence,” Qassas said.

Social rifts

However, the major challenge the organisation faces, Qassas speculates, is not the state crackdown, but deep social rejection. He speculates that for 80 years, the state’s tight grip over the political existence of the Brotherhood failed to make it lose the support of the Egyptian people.

“Now after one year of bad governance, after they reached power in such a revolutionary momentum, the Brotherhood lost this huge social support among Egyptians for the first time in its long history. This will make their situation more difficult,” he explained.

Abdullah al-Keriouny, a Brotherhood figure and a leader in the Doctors Syndicate, agrees which much of Qassas’ assessment. 

The Brotherhood had been enjoying a major presence in professional syndicates and its members were being elected to senior positions in university student unions. These bodies are considered important power bases and major sources of member recruitment for the organisation.

“Syndicate activism is always a measure of how free a country could be, with this tight security grip, I doubt that we will have any chance of existence in the syndicates,” Keriouny said.

The anti-coup alliance, formed by the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties, called on Egyptians to launch a nationwide civil disobedience movement.

But Keriouny believes the situation is not as easy as it may seem “because participation in strikes and civil disobedience are usually connected to people’s personal interests, not the pressure of their syndicates”, he said, referring to various calls for civil disobedience in the past two years that were ignored by the people.

Diminished student support

Meanwhile, Abdel Rahman al-Bakry, an active leader in the Brotherhood student movement, seems to stay vigilant in the face of possible hardships the Brotherhood is expected to encounter.

Of course there is anger against the Brotherhood within the student community, but we will do our best to bring back the support we enjoyed in the past.

by - Abdel Rahman al Bakry, Muslim Brotherhood student leader

In 2011 and 2012,  the Brotherhood won a series of student union elections  which enabled it to unilaterally draft new student bylaws that were later passed through an administrative decision under Morsi’s reign without a referendum among the students.

As a result, in 2013, the Brotherhood lost a considerable part of its power, as politicised secular students banded together to win the elections. The secular students won enough of a majority to call for drafting new bylaws. Current Minister of High Education Hossam Eissa, also known to be an outspoken critic of the Brotherhood, promised the secular student union leaders that he will cancel the Brotherhood-drafted bylaws with another administrative decree.

In a conflict reminiscent of the showdown between the Brotherhood and their secular opponents during the group’s one-year rule, Bakry said, “The bylaws were drafted by [an] elected student body, we will not allow anyone to take over the will of the students.”

“Of course there is anger against the Brotherhood within the student community, but we will do our best to bring back the support we enjoyed in the past,” he continued.

Brotherhood plans

Moustafa Gamil, a young Brotherhood activist who left the group last November and came back to Rabaa to oppose the military takeover, shares Bakry’s optimism, but acknowledges the social rejection the Brotherhood faces from some sectors of the population.

“We will continue to be in the streets,” Gamil said. “The military cannot kill or detain us all. We will push them to realise that there is no option left for the military except to leave the political scene.”

Gamil believes that even though there is major anti-Brotherhood sentiment among Egyptians, most of those who favour the army are actually supporting whomever is more powerful. “If we are powerful, they will support us again,” he said, and believes that continuing the street protests will make the organisation more powerful, leading to renewed support.

Furthermore, Gamil explained that there are steps being taken by the Brotherhood youth to eliminate the reasons for social conflict between the organisation and other Egyptians.

“We decided to clear our protests from all armed personnel, and we are keen to stay away from churches and police stations during our marches,” he said.

Brotherhood supporters have been accused of being involved in armed conflicts with civilians nationwide. They are also accused of burning churches and destroying police stations. The Interior Ministry has declared that dozens of its personnel were killed following the camps’ dispersal and the Orthodox Church claimed the destruction of 64 churches and properties owned by Copts.

“The Brotherhood had already lost a major part of the student movement, and is expected to face a similar loss inside the syndicates as well,”  Qassas said. “The Brotherhood is involved in a deep social rift with the society that is too big to overcome easily.”

Source: Al Jazeera